I had the opportunity to go through the Master Gardener program in early 2015 at the Campbell County Extension Office in Northern Kentucky. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about local horticulture!
What is the Master Gardener Program?
According to Wikipedia, the Master Gardener Programs “are volunteer programs that train individuals in the science and art of gardening. These individuals pass on the information they learned during their training, as volunteers who advise and educate the public on gardening and horticulture”.
The Master Gardener Program in Northern Kentucky & Cincinnati
The Master Gardener program is offered through the extension offices of various universities. Northern Kentucky counties are extensions of the University of Kentucky and Cincinnati is an extension of the Ohio State University. In general, the extension offices are amazing resources for local farms and home gardeners. They offer services such as soil testing, disease and insect identification, classes on a wide range of topics and advice on pretty much anything plant-related.
The Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati programs are the same certification, just led by different universities. I’m not sure how the program is structured in Cincinnati in comparison to Northern Kentucky. I can tell you about my experience with the Northern Kentucky program, and pass along that I’ve heard the Cincinnati version is similar.
Northern Kentucky Master Gardener training rotates among the three counties, Campbell, Kenton and Boone. You don’t have to be from that county to attend – anyone from the Northern Kentucky / Cincinnati area can apply. There’s an application process with references, a fee (which you can earn part of back by completing volunteer hours in a timely manner), and a background check. The background check is for the volunteer portion of the program, since you may be working with the public, children, etc.
The Northern Kentucky training involves about 80 hours of classroom learning. We had classes on Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. starting at the beginning of December and wrapping up at the end of March (16 weeks). This classroom time covers a lot of material, and it can definitely be a lot to take in. There’s a test at the end to pass the training that shouldn’t be taken too lightly!
At the beginning of the classes you receive a hefty 3.5″ binder with study materials. It’s about a third full when you get it, but every class you add more and more to the binder until it’s completely full by the end!
The topics covered in these classes are:
- Basic Botany
- Plant Identification
- Plant Propagation
- Soils & Fertility
- Plant Diseases
- Diagnosing Plant Problems
- Integrated Pest Management
- Pesticides & Pesticide Safety
- Your Yard & Water Quality
- Care of Woody Plants
- Annual & Perennial Flowers
- Lawn Management
- Growing Tree Fruits
- Landscape Design
- Organic Gardening
- Vertebrate Pest Management
- Weed Management
- Selecting & Planting Woody Plants
- Vegetable Gardening
After the classroom training, you start on the volunteer portion of the certification. Hours can be completed the same year, or you can take a full year to complete them to graduate the next year. There is a higher hour requirement and more of them have to be fulfilled at the extension offices for that first certification year. All following years are considered recertification and require fewer hours and are a little more flexible on where they can be completed. There are many approved locations both in Northern Kentucky & Cincinnati to complete volunteer hours. There is also a process to submit new places for consideration as an approved site (provided they meet requirements like being a non-profit, have community impact, etc). In addition to volunteer hours, during recertification years you have educational hours that need to be fulfilled (the certification year training counts as all the education you’ll need that first year). All of the extension offices offer interesting classes pretty regularly, or you can count classes taken at places like the Civic Garden Center or the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
My Experience and Common Criticisms
One of the criticisms I’ve seen about the Master Gardener program is that because they are taught with connection to the bigger commercial agriculture universities, there’s not much knowledge or focus on organic or ecologically-friendly practices. While I can see this happening (since the extension agents deal with many farmers looking for answers with chemicals), I always felt like we were presented with an organic option, if there was one. I would say MOST of the participants of the class used organic practices. Actually this leads me to one of the things I really liked about the class… you learn a LOT from the participants of the class as well. Many of the participants in my year had been farming and gardening for decades and had a wealth of knowledge to share. I was usually just as busy scribbling notes during conversations and breaks because they had experimented with so much specific to our area.
The other criticism that I hear come up is that a few hours of classes and some volunteering doesn’t make you a Master at anything. People get really bent out of shape about the name of the program. No one who has gone through the program feels like they know everything, we still look stuff up in our enormous binder, Google or ask friends. It may be a lofty name, but I see it more as the commitment to continuing education, community and volunteering. Everyone in the class is interested in sharing horticulture knowledge with others, often at schools and public events, or just quietly weeding and slowly improving grounds for our favorite non-profits. You may hear about Master Gardeners giving out incorrect information to the public – well, so does the internet. I personally have never encountered anyone in my hours of volunteering purposely giving out false or misleading information. Gardening is an art and a science (and maybe even part folklore) and to be honest, sometimes we get asked really specific or off-the-wall questions. We do the best we can, like everyone else.
My continuing experience with the Master Gardener program has been wonderful. I’ve had a lot of fun volunteering at different sites with other plant nerds. I find the classes for the continuing education hours interesting enough that I’d take them even if I didn’t need them for recertification.
As for the actual classroom training, I found it incredibly useful in a number of ways:
1) We covered a lot of topics a little bit, which then let me deep dive into what I was most interested in on my own after the classes.
2) All the information presented was tailored to our regional or even super local growing area. Four seasons, clay soil, high humidity… the actual conditions we deal with in the garden around here. With topics like vegetable gardening, fruit trees, brambles and lawn management – you’ll hear specific recommendations based on plant trials and performance in our area. These recommendations usually come from the printed materials (university research), the instructors (extension and personal experience) and fellow participants (what they’ve tried in their garden and how it turned out).
3) So many recommendations on resources! Everyone’s favorite places to order seed, the best brand of garden tools, the best brand of wood mulch… there are recommendations for everything. I particularly loved finding out about local places to get soil & compost, garden supplies, and favorite nurseries.
If you’re thinking about going through the program, I would definitely say go for it!
NKY Master Gardener Association: membership network organization for those who have gone through the program